art and music, Christopher Rothko, Mark Rothko

The Art and Music synthesis: Does it exist?

Most musicians fully appreciate the extra-musical “programmatic” content in works by Romantic era composers. Robert Schumann, for example, captures children playing tag by throwing “got you” accents on the downbeats of measures framed in sprightly staccato. (short, detached articulations) The aforementioned is well-illustrated in Schumann’s colorful tableau, “Hasche-Mann”-“Blindman’s Bluff” from Kinderszenen: (The vocabulary of art naturally spills into descriptions of music and complements a visualization of children playing a derring-do game.)

Debussy’s La Mer, likewise suggests a pictorial representation of the sea, against the backdrop of the Impressionistic era that was represented by French artists, Renoir and Monet.

But while artistic metaphors like the above, may permeate music with subjective titles in the programmatic genre, the question arises whether a recent critique of Mark Rothko’s work by his son Christopher, claiming the painter’s abstract art is strikingly akin to Mozart in its Classical form, content and aesthetic is valid.

The writing to which I refer appeared in the Art Newspaper, January 2016:

Can a work of art “sing” according to the author? Does Mark Rothko’s Orange over Purple suggest a Mozart Aria? Is it certain that the artist’s love of Mozart seeped into his paintings? And isn’t the viewer privileged to own the freedom to inhabit a fancy free imaginative space without an inserted musical ingredient.

Orange over Purple
Rothko’s Yellow over Purple (1956).

M.Rothko’s son writes about the above: “The artist’s colour-field paintings “are like a Mozart aria… making possible the most passionate communication.” (painting, Courtesy of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko)


Mozart, along with Haydn who epitomized the essence of Classical form, was a composer whose melodies reigned supreme as Christopher Rothco correctly asserts, though he neglects to add that the composer had many notable fugal finales in many of his works:

Examples: In the “Allegro” from the String Quintet in D, K. 593, and in the finales of both the Jupiter Symphony and the K. 593 Quintet, Mozart fleshes out his contrapuntal prowess. (The last movement of “Jupiter” has 5-part invertible counterpoint.)

As for C. Rothko’s assumption that many of Mozart’s compositions are inevitably permeated by tears and joy, and not tears alone, such can be easily refuted by the testimony of a varied group of listeners, some unattached to the academic musicological community.

The singularly deep pathos registered in Ave Verum Corpus for example, has no counteracting joyful dimension as I hear it, though one’s personal affective response should not be generalized for all listeners.

Similarly the Mozart Masses contain dramatically tragic Kyrie sections that for many elicit tears of loss alone without pain relief that contradicts C. Rothko’s predetermined Mozartean emotional duality.

C. Rothko’s limited Mozartean vocabulary, therefore, is troubling by its omissions of works that do not support his thesis about the composer’s form and creative content, though his erudite way of describing Mozart’s music is conveniently imported into Mark Rothko’s paintings. (Perhaps the fact that the author was 6 years old when his father passed away, nullifies his first-hand knowledge that M. Rothko’s abstract offerings were actually Mozartean reflections.)

The “Strange Alliances” blog site featured the Jan. 9, 2016 entry, “Mark Rothko From the Inside Out by Christopher Rothko” with its WordPress host, “Elaine” offering a thoughtful opinion about the music/art synthesis.

“As someone who is not an artist or lacking an intimate knowledge of Mozart, to me it is the composition that is the key. The way the colours and shapes work with on another either creating harmony or dissonance. A piece of music or a work of art can both elicit a visceral response.

Orange over Purple seems to be a vibrant work and I think Christopher Rothko associates Mozart with this type of vibrancy and the colours engaging in a dialogue that, along with the way the rectangles are placed on the canvas, becomes more than a sum of its parts.

“To my amateur ear Debussy does not strike a listener with the same vigour as Mozart and would require more mellow colors. But this is the interesting phenomenon with art that each observer brings their own experience to the table and can view a piece in a different way.”


“Neil,” a poet who records his lovely lyrics over self-composed soundtracks chimed in.

“I don’t know precisely what he meant, but metaphor is a powerful tool for presenting things in a new light. It may not be a precise interpretation, perhaps a simile, but I do know from colour theory that some colours sing visually when placed against certain others. “Sing” meaning a different intensity and vibrancy (or it just appears to the eye that way). There are more ways of articulating this without devices but I feel they may not be as emotional in communicating a point and I think emotion is an important ingredient in this.”


Merrill Schleier, Emeritus Professor of Art and Architectural History and Film, U. of the Pacific at Stockton, CA added to the opinion mix.

“I think what the son is saying is that Rothko interpreted Mozart through his own subjective lens. The son is trying to interpret what that lens was, rather than force viewers to share the same vision.”


Judith Jacobs, a California Bay area-based digital artist took exception to the prescribed Rothko/Mozart alliance, while emphasizing her admiration for the painter:

“I read the Christopher Rothko excerpt and he’s really stretching it, intellectualizing the creative process way too much. From my experience, it’s impossible to explain completely how the process of making visual art (especially abstract art) is influenced by ANYTHING – it’s all in the realm of feelings and subconscious thoughts that can’t be described in words. Trying to explain how Mozart influenced the abstract, highly reductive paintings of Rothko (which I love) seems futile to me. The only discipline I’ve seen validly related to Rothko’s art is Zen Buddhism. But that has to do with how the art affects the viewer.”

Elaine Comparone, harpsichordist and art maven, who lives within easy reach of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and its Modern Art companion, shrugged off the beauty of M. Rothko’s abstract art but concurred with Judith about the process of artistic creation and its natural internal unity.

With a plethora of circulating ideas that celebrate diversity among artists, writers and musicians, it appears that a work of art can speak for itself without a word spoken, or a note emanating from it.

5 thoughts on “The Art and Music synthesis: Does it exist?”

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